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My Public School Students Read Pro-Charter Propaganda

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I am a South Bronx public school teacher who is expected to teach my students that they must enroll in charter schools and leave “desultory” public schools, such as ours, if they wish to succeed.

I, along with scores of other New York high school teachers, teach from a Houghton Mifflin Harcourt (HMH) Collections textbook whose introductory text is a pro-charter chapter from Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers.  In it, Gladwell advances the stereotype that low-income U.S. students will only succeed if they study as hyper-industrious Japanese and South Korean students do.  The text is unsuitable to teach because of its omissions and its failure to answer key counterarguments; even ones that it explicitly raises.

Before I criticize the article, here is a summary of it:

Summary of “Marita’s Bargain.”

Gladwell begins by depicting the South Bronx as impoverished, “bleak-looking” and dangerous, especially “after dark.”*  He then praises a South Bronx KIPP Academy middle school (a charter school) for its high test scores and popularity, as measured by the “hundreds of families” who apply to KIPP.  He suggests that KIPP’s program holds promise for poor communities around the country.

Gladwell then outlines the history of American skepticism towards over-study and summer vacation.  He cites Edward Jarvis’s and Horace Mann’s claims that over-study can lead to insanity (Jarvis), or at least a “pernicious influence upon” students “character,” “habits,” and overall “health” (Mann).  He adds that other nineteenth century reformers believed that over-study could hinder students’ ability to think independently: Youths “acquire the habit of thought and reflection, and of forming their own conclusions, independently of what they are taught […]” only when they are freed from the regime of study, according to a reformer who wrote in Massachusetts Teacher.

From here, Gladwell pivots to contrasting East Asian farming methods with American ones.  He asserts that the reformers, such as Mann and Jarvis, who believed  that over-study was harmful, did so because “We formulate new ideas by analogy,” and that this truism, alone, explains “the logic the reformers applied to the cultivation of young minds.”  In other words, Gladwell asserts that the reformers’ opposition to over-study was due to their belief that children were analogous to crops.  American crops needed to lie fallow for long periods.  East Asian crops did not.  That is why East Asians study more than Americans, according to Gladwell.  Gladwell, however, does not provide any evidence that the reformers’ actually believed in this crop analogy.

Gladwell then cites sociologist Karl Alexander’s work, which measures the ill effects of extended summer vacation on low-income Baltimoreans’ test scores.  Alexander demonstrated that although low- and middle- income students learn as much as high income students during the school year, higher income students’ skills and knowledge significantly expand over the summer, while lower income students’ gains are much lower or even negative.  Alexander’s work thus shows that lower income schools perform well during the school year, but that their students are inadequately stimulated during summers.  According to Alexander, lower income students’ inactivity during summers is thus a large reason for their lagging behind higher income students (This section is admittedly a compelling argument for providing more schooling, or other means of enrichment, to American children during summers, and I do not dispute it.).

Circling back to East Asia, Gladwell argues that if the U.S. school year (180 days in public schools) were closer in length to South Korean or Japanese school years (220 and 243 days, respectively), then U.S. education would improve.

The remainder of Gladwell’s piece describes the KIPP experience.  KIPP’s secret, for Gladwell, is that it requires American students to work like East Asians, – even to the point of apparent inefficiency.  Gladwell observes a KIPP student, named Aaron, completing a math problem “for twenty minutes – methodically, carefully, with the participation of the class[;]” and exploring, also “whether there was more than one way to get the answer.”  Aaron’s teacher explains to Gladwell that this method aids retention because it is slower and more sure-footed.  He says, “we do things at a slower pace and as a result we get through a lot more.  There’s more retention.”

Gladwell also lauds a typical KIPP student, Marita, for completing so much schoolwork, including six extended days at KIPP and homework requirements, that she has little time to eat, sleep, or talk to her mother – let alone her friends.  Thus is “Marita’s bargain.”  She made the exceptional and costly choice of sacrificing her social life in favor of working like a “medical resident.”

Why shouldn’t over-study harm mental health?

As has been seen, Gladwell fails to rigorously answer the nineteenth century reformers’ counterarguments about over-study.  Instead of doing so, he simply remarks that intellectual leaders of the nineteenth century assumed that students were like crops.  Ironically, addressing a counterargument is a key skill that is tested on New York’s Common Core English Exam skill.  This renders HMH’s choice of Gladwell’s text especially conspicuous.

It is also ironic that Gladwell gives Horace Mann’s ideas such short shrift in a piece that is set in the Bronx.  The Horace Mann School is arguably the borough’s most famous high school, and Mann has been enshrined in The Hall of Fame for Great Americans at Bronx Community College.  More to the point, Mann’s educational ideas are still studied and respected.  One wonders if Gladwell would be equally dismissive of the ideas of John Dewey, who remains, arguably, the U.S.’s greatest intellectual of all time, and is only somewhat more revered than Mann.

But is Gladwell correct that over-study is harmless to mental health?  It happens that South Korea and Japan lead the advanced world in suicide rates.  South Korea’s is 24.1 per 10,000 people.  Japan’s is 15.4.  By contrast, the suicide rate in Canada, which produces standardized test scores that rival South Korea’s and Japan’s, is 10.4.  The U.S.’s rate is 12.2, barely half as high as South Korea’s.

This data, of course, does not prove that over-study causes depression or mental illness.  But if Gladwell is going to prescribe a study regime like that of South Korea and Japan to adolescents in the South Bronx – many of whom have already experienced trauma, witnessed violence, lost an immediate family member, been incarcerated, or suffered from depression – the burden of proof is on him.  He must demonstrate that the two wealthy countries with the highest suicide rates, which are stereotypical examples of overwork and unhappiness, do not overwork their students to the point of depression or mental illness.

Does over-study curb independent thought?

The notion that over-study does not harm independence of thought also deserves a serious attempt at refutation.   Consider the serial catastrophes that U.S. political and media elites’ conformist thinking have led to.  Our elites’ support for the Iraq War, and the financial deregulation that crushed the world economy in 2008 are obvious examples.  In 2016, a wide consensus of elites believed that the most unpopular Democratic presidential candidate of all time would be more likely to defeat Donald Trump than themost popular politician in the U.S.  

For their part, elite lemmings of South Korea and Japan followed Washington-style neoliberalism off of an economic cliff in the 1990s – such that each suffered a “lost decade” of economic growth.

Those who seek and win high marks from the authority figures who teach and grade them tend to think and behave in conformist ways.  Just so, success in elite schools correlates with conformity and conventional thinking.  It should follow that relief from the rigors of schooling tends to enable independent thought.  This popular line of thinking that I am voicing seems as relevant today as in the nineteenth century when education reformers’ conceived it.  It shall not do to hand-wave it away because students aren’t crops, as Gladwell does.

Standing, moreover, against Gladwell’s notion that an ultra-strict study regime is best for struggling U.S. students are the likes of Dewey, Diane Ravitch, and Noam Chomsky.  Dewey’s progressive educational model promoted a radical level of freedom for students.  Ravitch holds the progressive model of Finland as the world’s best education system.  Finland is famous for assigning its students little to no homework.

In a thought-provoking speech from decades ago, Chomsky said, “Japan, for example is very poor in science […] and they’re aware of it[…].  It’s part of the same thing that makes them good workers; obedient workers.  It’s a very obedient society; very deferential and conformist society […]. There are real constraints against independent, free thinking.”

Whether Chomsky’s admittedly stereotypical description of the Japanese is accurate or not is beside the point.  If formal education breeds conformity, as intellectuals have suspected for centuries, then charter schools, with their protocols and slogans, marketing and self-promotion, emphases on testing, pep rallies, and curtailing of unions’ and students rights, should breed more conformity than your average school.  And to ignore this is to ignore an obvious criticism against KIPP charter schools.

Why Japan and South Korea rather than Canada or Finland?

By comparing U.S. students to those of East Asia rather than Europe, Canada, and Australia, Gladwell is engaging in a classically American sort of fear-mongering.

We Americans have developed strong inferiority complexes.  As our knowledge of our technology addictions, our ignorance of foreign languages and cultures, and our obesity, have grown, we have fallen prey to the stereotype that we are ignorant and lazy.  Gladwell exploits this, by comparing us not to the residents of the generous welfare states of Europe, Canada, and Australia whom we often outwork, but to hard-working and austere East Asians, whom we have been trained to fear and feel inferior to.

In fact, Americans are not as lazy or as stupid as we think.  In 2016, Americans worked more hours per year than residents of every Western European country except for Portugal, Ireland, Iceland and Greece**.

And America’s dark secret – that media elites will never reveal – is that the U.S. actually overachieves on standardized tests.  On one hand, the U.S. never beats Canada, Australia, or Western European countries in any category that reflects the overall quality of life of its people.  Our incarceration and crime rates, child poverty rates, student debt levels, and lack of maternal leave, health care, vacation, and sick leave benefits are the shame of the first world.  This is why it would seem foolish to expect us to outperform Switzerland, Italy, Iceland, Austria or Luxembourg on standardized tests.  Yet we miraculously bested all of these countries on the 2015 PISA Reading exam.  We also beat Austria, France, Sweden, Luxembourg, Italy, and Iceland in Science in 2015.  Our 2015 Math scores were near the bottom of the first world – but anyone who pretends to be shocked by this can go ahead and… write for The Washington Post.    

We Americans are the easiest mark at the casino.  Tell us that we are exceptionally fat, lazy, and stupid, and we will readily agree.  Tell us the next moment that we should be number one in test scores because we won the Olympic Medal count, and we will nod on cue.

That is why it is so easy for writers such as Gladwell to fool us:  It may be true that the U.S. does surprisingly well on tests.  It is more profitable to sound the old trope, if only Americans worked like the Japanese… .  It may be apparent that Finland and Canada have created superior education systems by improving administration and teacher education.  They do not compel their students to work “the hours of a lawyer trying to make partner, or of a medical resident,” as Marita does at KIPP.  But why mention such complicated truths if the notion that blacks and Latinos just need to study like Koreans, and all will be well, will always sell books?

How effective is KIPP anyway?

Recall that Gladwell’s claim that KIPP’s methods are efficient rests largely on a single KIPP teacher’s opinion.  The un-named teacher believes that students’ Socratic-style briefings of their math solutions, while time-consuming, impart knowledge more durably than standard means of instruction.  And oddly, Gladwell accepts Aaron’s teacher’s assertion that KIPP students succeed, not because they have “50 to 60 percent more learning time” than public school students, but because “we do things at a slower pace and as a result we get through a lot more.  There’s more retention.”

Scholarly rigor demands that Gladwell separate and examine each variable.  Is the apparently inefficient slowness of the KIPP classroom, in fact, paradoxically, efficient, as Aaron’s teacher says?  Or, do KIPP students perform well mostly because of the sheer number of hours they put in?  Since Gladwell does not disentangle these variables, his notion that KIPP’s methods are efficient is dubious.

Other obvious variables to consider are selection and attrition.  Students who apply to KIPP in the first place are more motivated than their peers, as they are willing to accept KIPP’s study and disciplinary regimes.  And those who endure the extreme rigors of a KIPP school career, as opposed to those who quit or are expelled, will tend to be the smartest, hardest working, most intellectually enthusiastic students at KIPP.  They will also tend to be wealthier, and have more stable home lives, than those who fail or drop out of KIPP.  Ultimately, any school that demands extreme study hours of its students and is allowed to expel less motivated students, is likely to produce high test scores through selection and attrition alone – regardless of whether its methods are effective or efficient.

Why is this text in my textbook?

For all of its flaws, Gladwell’s piece is more measured and restrained than many pro-charter articles.  Yes, he does argue, with scanty evidence, that KIPP’s teaching methods are excellent.  But his piece is at least free of union- and teacher-bashing.  And since the thesis of Outliers is that an extreme work ethic engenders success, which is true enough for KIPP’s best students, “Marita’s Bargain” is perhaps better viewed as an endorsement of hard work than as a serious assessment of KIPP’s merits.

More inimical than Gladwell’s omissions and flaws, though, is the fact that HMH chose his essay to use in a high school English textbook for seniors.  My students must read, aloud, the following Gladwell comments about their schools, families and neighborhood, during the first week of school:

“These [South Bronx streets] are not streets that you’d happily walk down after dark.”

” […]Families” on “free or reduced lunch” “earn so little that the federal government chips in so the children can eat properly at lunchtime.”

” Marita has responsibilities… .  Her community does not give her what she needs.”

” […] 90% of KIPP students get scholarships instead of having to attend their own desultory high schools in the Bronx.”  [The bold lettering appears in the HMH edition, as “desultory” is to be taught as a vocabulary word.]

As insulting and even dubious as these comments are,  I do not object to them on political correctness or even substantive grounds.  Rather, they are important because they underscore how committed HMH was to publishing Gladwell’s essay.

HMH publishers were so determined to convey Gladwell’s unfounded ideas – that over-study is harmless to mental health and independent thought, that the most desperate U.S. students simply need to study like East Asians, and that KIPP schools are superior to public low-income schools – that the company was willing to abase its reputation by endorsing hand-waving pseudo-scholarship, and insult the schools, communities and students that it serves, in the process.

Notes.

*Gladwell mislabels the South Bronx as “one of the poorest neighborhoods in New York City.”  The South Bronx, is of course half of a borough, and comprises several neighborhoods.

** One reason that residents of these countries worked so many hours is that their economies were devastated by the 2008 financial crisis.

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Erik Mears is a veteran and an educator.

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